Sur to Malibu, PART II: Malibu canyons

No reason a 250 can't keep pace with a trio of thous
Published August 22, 2009
PART I: What's Big Sur? PART II: Malibu canyons

My real reason for being in Southern California is too embarrassing to admit (baby, ahem, shower) but I had the fortune of a good excuse to skip on the future-in-law family outing to Meryl Streep’s latest theatrical assault on masculinity. I’d been set up on a blind moto date (purely platonic) with a group of experienced gents. They were billed as “old man sport bikers,” but none of them were on trick knees or anything. To my knowledge.

August 8, 2009

Because we started the day early “to beat the traffic, the heat and the Harley riders,” I layered a thermal under my jacket. Mornings in San Francisco are always chilly, but I quickly learned that Southern California in August is always hot. Before we’d even left the meeting point, the thermal layer was in my tank bag and I was still a bit sweaty-sticky under my gear. Must. Create. Air flow. Before too long–maybe a little too long–we left morning coffee behind to carve some canyons.

I left the path finding to the two locals, both of whom were mounting 1,000cc uber-bikes, one a Yamaha FZ1 and the other a Honda RC51. Four of my bikes wouldn’t equal the horsepower of one of theirs, and so I hoped we wouldn’t endure much superslab before hitting twisty bits where the 250’s power deficit might shed relevance. I didn’t cry a tear when we ignored the freeway on-ramp and, way before I expected, rolled to a stop at the base of Decker Canyon Road. My chaperon leaned and yelled over the bellow of his Yoshimura pipes thrumming a V-twin rhythm, “We’ll take it easy,” before ripping around the first bend.

Decker Canyon is steep and intensely tight, with hairpins stacked atop each other as the road climbs up, up and away from civilization and into the mountains north of Malibu. Good thing the guys leading me took it “easy” as I had to push to match their pace. Brake late and hard, pitching all my weight onto my wrists and into the handlebars, lean into a corner and there’s no way to keep up without separating ass from seat. Weight inside, trailing the front brake, peg the apex and break open the throttle, wah-wah-wah, upshift for a few revs and immediately downshift, strangle the brake lever for the next lascivious bend.

After thoroughly separating ourselves from society, we veered east on Mulholland Highway. I didn’t know it, but I was being escorted to a popular stretch of Mulholland locals know as The Snake and which comprises bends and road quality worthy of a racetrack, chiseled into the sloping canyon wall and marked by terrestrial sculpting more perfect than the contrived Disneyland Matterhorn.

At the base of the course is The Rock Store, a business that attracts motorcyclists of all sorts and allegedly Jay Leno and other celebrities on occasion. I couldn’t say what The Rock Store’s business is, because while we spent ten or fifteen minutes wandering the parking lot, I didn’t bother to go inside. Outside, a display not too unlike the usual lot at Alice’s offered some firsts for my eyes. A Vincent Rapide tricked me into thinking I’d spotted a mint Black Shadow. Across the lot, a cherry Indian stood apart from the Harleys, dressed in a shade of brown that went extinct decades ago.

Commonly, my escorts ride up and down The Snake three or four times on a weekend excursion. It’s worth indulging. We decided to run back to the top for photos, but the RC51 had killed its battery. The two of us that didn’t leave our headlamps shining while we wasted time in The Rock Store’s lot took back to the road anyway and the Honda rider assured us he’d join when the bike started. We loitered at the top, where I snapped some shots and noted the delicate ecosystem of highway, motorcyclists and cops, both human species cohabiting the narrow stretch of asphalt in peaceful harmony. The police weren’t on the scene as predators eager to chase riders with hungry citation quotas. To the contrary, I witnessed a CHP cruiser pull onto a narrow gravel shoulder to let a motorcyclist pass from behind. The only prey was an endless supply of tasty corners that seemed to have multiplied like rabbits. Aggressive riding’s no problem on Mulholland. Just population control.

I surveyed the road, the landscape and the motos that traced the skinny lines in distant hills around me. After what must’ve been near a half hour, the rider with a dead battery rolled to the top of The Snake will fully juiced electrics, having signed a liability waiver to demo the Zero S electric motorcycle its manufacturer was showcasing at The Rock Store. The bike looks hot, compact and capable. Granted, the sound it makes is less stirring than a plug-in leaf blower, I figure I’ll happily make the electric jump when there’s infrastructure to recharge with the convenience of a petrol fill.

After tear-arsing back down to The Rock Store, a dash of smart phone Googling assured me the dead Honda could be bump-started. The bike’s rider, trusting my cautious advice, rolled downhill, allowing gravity to massage speed into the wheels. Around the first corner, out of view, and still no internal combustion rumbling. Silence. Pushing the bike uphill won’t be fun. More silence. And a minute later, prowww-arrr-prrr-arrr-prowww, the Honda willed itself to rejoin the living.

We turned to Encinal Canyon Road to guide us to Zuma Beach. Unlike earlier roads, Encinal carves longer, sweeping blind turns that allow for more speed…provided there’s trust the corners don’t sharpen. It’s all new to me, so I backed off the throttle and prudently trusted the turns only as far as I could see ’em. The local literbikes excelled, and for the first time that day I was left behind. No worry, as Encinal is dead-simple to follow to the ocean.

Our posse picked up a fourth bike and a third old man sport biker, who also brought with him no fewer than a thousand cubic centimeters of displacement. A short tour of Malibu’s beaches and the Pacific Coast Highway brought us to Kanan Road for more canyon carving.

Those canyon roads are seriously special and not only challenged but completely demolished my belief that California’s Bay Area is home to the West Coast’s best tarmac. Scorched hillsides and desert flora might not beat San Francisco’s greens, but the turns are just phenomenal and much more tightly packed than I’m used to.

To traverse the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California is to endure a constant barrage of angry corners, some so long and sharp they seem to form infinite loops that somehow connect to the next series of bends which alternately flirt with the canyon’s ledge. On our final run, we passed by a Toyota MR2 on its own group joyride that also flirted with the canyon ledge. The ledge was not amused, and the driver was left with both front wheels dangling over the lip of the road, the back held down by the luck of a mid-mounted engine and two friends standing on the rear bumper. Don’t see that in San Francisco.

August 10, 2009

I had thirty-six hours of rest off the bike before diving into another day-long ride to return home. I’d fulfilled my desire to see Big Sur on the way south, so surely I could shorten the return trip and just endure freeway, yes? Absolutely no. I took the long route home. The skies were overcast the entire day, and traffic was no lighter on a Monday than it was on the previous Friday–get jobs, people–but the coastal roads are unmissable. For the pleasure, a day is a fair price to pay.